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FCC's DTV Education Proposal

August 5, 2007

The Federal Communications Commission has four DTV transition-related regulatory actions ongoing now. The most recent proposed rule was released this past week: "DTV Consumer Education Initiative."

The proposed measures were prompted by a letter from John Dingell (Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee) and Ed Markey (Chairman of the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet). The letter strongly urged the FCC to take a lead role in educating the American public on the upcoming transition, no doubt in recognition that the TV industry and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which agency Congress gave $5 million for consumer education, have not made good on their commitments to start educating.

Markey and Dingell proposed a number of measures the FCC should consider taking. Some of the proposed measures are good and some are pretty useless. The FCC's proposed rule echoes the suggestions in the Congressional letter, seeking comment from the industry and the public.

Here are the measures the FCC is considering:

  • Mandatory public service announcements (PSAs) by broadcasters. This type of message is the most effective and efficient way to reach TV viewers. The FCC wants to know what the PSAs should say and how often they should be aired.

  • The FCC is asking what mechanisms should be set up to provide consumers with more detailed information, once they have gotten the basic message.

  • Mandatory reports by broadcasters of all efforts they have undertaken to educate their viewers about the DTV transition.

  • Mandatory notices by cable and satellite TV companies in customer bills that inform their customers about the digital television transition and their future viewing options.

  • Requiring TV manufacturers to include information about the transition in TV packaging -- for example, put in with the owner's manual.

  • Working with the NTIA to require retailers who participate in the converter box coupon program to detail their employee training and consumer education programs.

  • The FCC's DTV education web site (www.dtv.gov) has in excess of 50 partners. The Dingell/Markey letter irrationally suggested that the FCC might want to require these partners to report their specific consumer outreach efforts (rewarding them for their good deeds?). In an effort to be responsive to our beloved national legislature, the FCC has included this last suggestion in its proposed rule.

So there we have it. Five months until converter boxes show up in stores and subsidy coupons become available, and we're still not anywhere close to letting the public know about the transition. The proposed rule hasn't yet been published in the Federal Register, and the clock doesn't start ticking until that happens. But at least the timetable for comments is fast track, finished 45 days after publication -- that would be late September, then figure a couple of months or three (or more) to get out a final rule, and then at least a month (more likely two) before mandatory education announcements go on the air.

That would be sometime early next year. The TV industry isn't going to complain; they're certainly in no hurry to get started.

- - -

Next week comments will be in on the FCC's proposals to get the broadcast industry's transition preparations kickstarted. We're talking about serious hardware issues. That's Wednesday.

On Friday the FCC's reconstituted consumer advisory committee meets. You may recall it's chaired by a representative of the industry's Digital Television Transition Coalition - broadcasters, cable industry, and TV manufacturers (all having an interest in keeping the public in the dark). Why?

Broadcasters as a whole are not ready for the transition (a few are). Their digital channel transmitters are not up to full power so some of their viewers can't receive their digital broadcasts. Many are still not able to pass through high-definition programming. Some are still not on the air with any digital signal. Educate the public and consumers will complain.

Cable companies have been fighting the FCC on any number of issues, and have stated that the cable TV transition should follow its own timetable. Some compress the broadcasters signals to save bandwidth, lowering the video quality. Many systems can still only distribute an analog signal. Others charge extra for digital and high-def, and send only analog to basic subscribers, whether or not they have HDTVs. And most non-broadcast "cable channels" are still distributed in standard-definition analog (many are preparing to go high-def -- next year).

TV manufacturers are selling only digital sets now, but they're having trouble ramping up capacity to meet demand. If everyone learned about the transition at the same time, demand for digital sets would outstrip supply many times over. That would not be good for customer satisfaction. They would rather demand increase gradually over a longer period of time.

Anyway, I'll report on those two events next week, and hopefully there will also be some announcements about new toys.